As a Language Arts teacher, I considered teaching students to think deeply about what they read a very serious responsibility. I continue to believe that critical thinking is the single most important lesson students can learn from us. Either from a devotion to developing this skill in myself or because I am afflicted by the very human drive to make meaning of everything around me, I love the richness of literature and often seek to discover significance where others may not see it. In that vein, and at the risk of crediting authorial intent and genius where it may or may not be intended, I submit that Professor Albus Dumbledore provides a model of a leadership (particularly school leadership) worthy of emulation. A colleague once suggested that I may share some characteristics with Dumbledore. The truth is that it would give me great pleasure to be considered half the leader I believe him to be.
In case you have not read the Harry Potter books, Professor Dumbledore is the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where Harry attends school. Dumbledore’s other positions, accomplishments, and honors are too many to list here. He plays a significant role in a story centered around a student at his school precisely because he takes the time to know and develop a relationship with his students.
What follows are a few of the practices and characteristics that make him such an effective school leader.
Professor Dumbledore is a learning leader. The role of principal has shifted significantly in the last decade. Most have abandoned the view that values managerial prowess as the ultimate qualification. A deep understanding of teaching and learning has emerged as most critical instead. As the reasoning goes, a principal must be the “chief learner” in his/her school – the one who leads by the example of being most dedicated to advancing his/her own learning. In a story full of students and of avid learners, Dumbledore is arguably the most dedicated learner of all. For example, throughout the series, he seeks relentlessly to understand history. He interviews “witnesses” to events that appear to be important; he “collects” memories for further study; he pores over ancient texts and rumors and legends. Near the end of the story, his study of the nature, creation, identity, and location of “horcruxes” – the magical objects created by the antagonist Lord Voldemort in an attempt to achieve immortality – becomes a major focus of his efforts. He commits himself – at great cost – to a high level of learning. In a school full of learners, he models an unparalleled commitment to learning. Even more impressive than his commitment to the study of magical history is his dedication to understanding “muggles” – non-magical human beings. In fact, one of the great contrasts between Professor Dumbledore and Lord Voldemort is their respective view of muggles. Voldemort disdains them – when he does not hate them – and considers learning about them beneath his dignity. Dumbledore respects muggles, does everything within his considerable power to protect them, and commits himself to learning as much as possible about them. On the checklist of qualities that make a great leader, the box next to “committed to learning” is definitely marked for Albus Dumbledore.
Professor Dumbledore values learning more than rules. In my experience, many educators act as if the enforcement of school rules is their most important job. It is distressing (and frankly confusing) to me that we so often deprive students of the opportunity to learn for violating rules designed to ensure that they stay engaged in learning – like when we suspend students for being tardy to class. I believe that it is critical to remember that the rules we establish in schools serve our main focus – learning. Professor Dumbledore seems to operate from a similar belief. He nurtures Harry’s growth even when Harry runs afoul of school rules. From early in his first year, Harry frequently finds himself on the wrong side of school rules. His transgressions come mostly in the course of protecting his friends or fighting against the Dark Lord but he does in fact break the rules fairly regularly. From being “out of bounds” at every turn to sneaking into faculty members’ offices to crashing a flying car onto school’s lawn – Harry just can’t seem to obey the rules consistently. Dumbledore knows of Harry’s indiscretions. He frequently witnesses them; they are also reported to him by members of the faculty and staff and he is urged to apply strong sanctions. While he does threaten to expel Harry if he doesn’t toe the line, he makes Harry’s learning a much higher priority than Harry’s obedience. On more than one occasion, when he could be punishing him, Dumbledore chooses instead to teach Harry. You see, Dumbledore knows that an ability to follow rules will not be adequate preparation for the future that Harry will face. While a total disregard for order within the school environment would be harmful to his growth, a rigid conforming to the rules would not have prepared Harry for the feats he accomplishes. Dumbledore allows Harry (and other students) to make mistakes – and even bend the rules – so that they can continue learning.
… but does not stop others from enforcing rules. While school rules are subservient to student learning, they are not valueless. Great schools do not spend a huge amount of time enforcing petty rules, but their students adhere to expectations anyway. Great leaders do not cast themselves as disciplinarians, but they do ensure that there is order within their schools. Dumbledore may not have spent his time handing out detentions or deducting house points from mischievous children, but he also does not stop others from enforcing the rules. Professor Severus Snape very aggressively pursues the enforcement of school rules – frequently with undue relish. Mr. Argus Filch (caretaker/custodian) has whole filing cabinets full of disciplinary files and begs Dumbledore to reinstate the more severe forms of punishment. Dolores Umbridge is so devoted to rules that she makes up new ones and creates squads of students deputized to rat on their classmates for any violation of her ever increasing list of commandments. Throughout Dumbledore’s tenure as headmaster, he does not stop others from enforcing school rules. True, he prohibits Filch from torturing students; and he does not expel Harry as Snape urges; and he leaves the school (temporarily) when Umbridge goes too far in her zeal. He focuses his efforts on teaching and learning, but he does not treat school rules with disrespect nor does he ask teachers to let students ignore them. Even when Harry is assigned to unfair and even cruel punishments, Dumbledore does not overturn them. He knows that the only thing more dangerous than a mindless enforcement of the rules is a wanton disregard for them.
Part II describes more leadership traits that Professor Dumbledore models.